BNP Paribas headquarters in Paris. A New York court fined the French bank $9 billion for doing business in Sudan, Iran and Cuba. Image Credit: AP File

London/Hong: Financiers may grumble that the United States is acting like an imperial power in punishing foreign banks for dealings far beyond US territory, but in the end they are more likely to bow to Washington than kick against its dollar muscle.

Last week, French politicians and business leaders demanded an end to the global dominance of the US currency — and hence of the US banking system — after a New York court fined French bank BNP Paribas $9 billion for doing business in Sudan, Iran and Cuba. Yet despite irritation at the long reach of US sanctions, most bankers see that as wishful thinking.

Instead, major lenders in Europe and Asia are reacting to the steady flow of punishments from the United States by doing ever more to comply with US laws and by cutting business ties in countries Washington dislikes rather than risk its wrath and, in the worst scenario, risk exclusion from the dollar system.

Official regulators outside the United States are starting to look at ways to prevent their own banks and markets from being damaged by the scale of US penalties. But for now, each bank on its own has little choice but to toe Washington’s line.

“The demands placed on banks to know their customer’s customer, even in countries where such records are not routinely kept, means that banks have little choice but to terminate relationships or risk eye-watering, balance sheet altering fines,” said Anthony Browne, chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association (BBA).

The BBA estimates Western banks have cut hundreds of relationships with correspondent banks in emerging markets, hurting businesses, governments and people in poorer countries.

Large commodity traders such as Glencore, Vitol, Trafigura and Mercuria are stepping in to plug the gap in trade finance. Glencore was chosen last month by the government of Chad to finance its purchase of $1.3 billion of assets being sold by US oil company Chevron.

Meanwhile, far from turning their backs on the United States as a result of the demands of regulators and judges, foreign banks who have fallen foul of US rules are doing everything they can to ensure they can still tap the world’s financial epicentre.

BNP has set up a financial security unit in New York to ensure its staff comply with all US sanctions and all of its US dollar flows will ultimately be processed and controlled via its branch in New York, centralising activities that used to be spread across various international offices. 

Russia ‘wake-up’ call

For all that, there are plenty of bankers with whom the US attitude rankles. Many — privately — sympathise with the senior British banker who was quoted in US legal papers when his bank was fined in 2012 for breaching sanctions on Iran.

In an expletive-charged broadside, the executive was quoted as saying: “You ... Americans! Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?” Nowadays, bankers are loath to object in public to US requirements, even though privately many believe Washington is using its financial dominance to push its foreign policy agenda and give its own banks the edge over foreign rivals.

“If the US says you must clamp down, you have to do it.” New York attorney Adam Kaufmann dismissed the idea that the United States was engaging in “financial imperialism” overseas or targeting foreign banks for economic gain. US courts were simply applying laws in respect of the domestic banking system — where foreign banks need some presence if they are to clear payments in dollars, wherever in the world they are made.

“If you’re going to use US financial institutions, you have to play by US rules,” said Kaufmann, a former prosecutor involved in numerous sanctions violations cases.

Despite grumbling from European players, US banks have also suffered. JP Morgan was fined a record $13 billion this year for misleading investors during the housing crisis.

In Russia, where Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over this year’s Ukraine crisis have prompted tens of billions of dollars in capital flight, the BNP fine may make international banks even more wary of doing business with Russian customers.

Brian Zimbler, managing partner of US law firm Morgan Lewis’s Moscow office called BNP’s penalty a “wake-up call”: “Banks around the world are very scared of the US

authorities,” he said. “They are less likely to want to do deals with any counterparty in Russia unless they know them well.” British banks Lloyds and HSBC, both of which have been punished by the United States in the past for sanctions violations, last month pulled out of a financing deal involving Russian state-run oil company Rosneft over concerns it could become embroiled in the diplomatic conflict. 

Foreign regulators irked

Banks’ shareholders remain more troubled by the legacy of past failures to follow US policies. Analysts at Morgan Stanley expect major banks to pay out another $75 billion in the next three years, on top of $210 billon already paid.

But estimates are hard to pin down. As recently as February, BNP Paribas was setting aside just $1.1 billion to cover its US sanctions settlement. That was $8 billion off target.

Uncertainty is putting off investors and causing headaches for regulators. A senior official at the Bank of England said this week that potential fines were making it harder to work out how much capital regulators should tell lenders to hold.

“We have to be very clear that actions are taken which do not undermine the stability of the financial system,” said the central bank’s deputy governor Andrew Bailey.

Britain’s financial watchdog levied total fines last year equivalent to just 8 per cent of the BNP fine alone, according to figures compiled by regulatory think tank JWG Group.

In a bid to try and iron out differences in the way different countries punish corporate wrongdoing, international regulators are carrying out a review of the different penalties to show which ones are the most effective.

“I think people are beginning to realise that it’s not healthy to have different approaches,” said David Wright, secretary general of regulators association the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO).

In Asia, mounting US fines and Washington’s determination to impose its rules has prompted regulators to join forces, and, in a marked cultural shift, air their grievances publicly.

“Regulators in some Asian jurisdictions are beginning to recognise that they need to band together, as they won’t get very far on their own,” said Mark Austen, chief executive of Hong Kong-based bank trade group the Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. “We are seeing a sea change.” Other big capital markets may some day encroach on US financial hegemony, but probably not any time soon.

At a summit next week in Brazil, leaders of the Brics — China, India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa — will launch a development bank to be a symbol of their ambitions for global influence. The currency in which they have chosen to denominate its share capital is a familiar one, however — the US dollar.